Memory Loss? Don’t Panic. The Cause May Be Treatable.

**By Alison Koop with Richard Mesher, MD**

Maybe you keep misplacing your car keys. Your spouse says you just asked the same question 10 minutes ago. Or perhaps balancing your checkbook has become a more difficult math challenge than it ever was. Don’t panic and assume the worst. There are a number of conditions that affect memory and brain power – and many of them are highly treatable. Here are some possible causes that you may want to ask your physician about, from vitamin deficiency to chronic stress.

Thinking manVitamin B12 deficiency

Low vitamin B12 levels can cause confusion and poor memory. While most people get enough of this nutrient in their diet, there are exceptions. Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency because they avoid meat and dairy products, main sources of the vitamin. Older adults are also at higher risk, who may have poorer absorption of the nutrient from food. The diabetes drug metformin has also been shown to lower B12 levels, as has omeprazole (sold under the brand name Prilosec among others), an acid reducing drug that can interfere with B12 absorption. If there is a true deficiency and it’s caught early, B12 injections may alleviate cognitive symptoms, but be sure to tell your doctor all medications you take to avoid unwanted interactions.

Extreme stress

Maybe you’ve had one of those “character building” events in your life recently. Extreme stress – the kind we experience from a job loss, death of a loved one, or financial concerns — increases our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Short attention span and memory problems are common symptoms of elevated cortisol. It affects parts of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that helps form new memories. Chronic depression also alters the function of the hippocampus. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a health care professional if your stress levels or feelings of depression seem unmanageable.

Thyroid disease and other hormone imbalances

Among other symptoms, a thyroid imbalance can cause dementia-like symptoms. Too little of thyroid hormone circulating in your body (hypothyroidism) is far more common than too much (hyperthyroidism, or Graves’ disease). It strikes women at a much higher rate than men, and risk rises with age, especially after about age 50. Women with a family history of thyroid disease are also at higher risk. Typical symptoms include very low energy/unexplained fatigue, very dry or thickened skin, thinning hair (especially eyebrows), numbness in fingertips, and feeling cold all the time. If this sound like you, report these symptoms to your doctor. A simple blood test will help diagnose the condition.

Normal hormonal changes related to aging can also cause forgetfulness, slowed thinking, or confusion. Women going through menopause often experience memory problems when their estrogen declines. In men, low testosterone can sometimes affect memory.

Poor (or not enough) sleep

You’re probably very aware that when you don’t get enough sleep, your brain is foggy the next day. But did you know that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to persistent problems with both short-term and long-term memory? If you’re bothered by chronic insomnia or just have trouble settling in for the night, discuss relaxation techniques and other sleep strategies with your doctor.

Quality of sleep is as important as the total number of hours. If you sleep 7 to 8 hours each night but are still groggy all day, it’s possible you suffer from sleep apnea. With sleep apnea, your breathing is interrupted and you wake for a few seconds to gasp for air. In severe cases, this can happen hundreds of times a night. If you have sleep apnea you’re probably not aware of it, but your partner may have noticed. Consider having him or her capture cell phone video to show your doctor.

In one estimate, up to 20 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Fortunately, there are some relatively low-tech/non-drug strategies that will help correct the problem.

Medication side effects

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause mild cognitive side effects Common culprits include cold and allergy medications, sleep aids, and antidepressants.

Accidentally taking too much of a medication can also cause problems. So can stopping one too quickly. And if you’re taking several drugs at the same time, as many older people do, you might be at risk for a harmful drug interaction. So be sure your doctor has a complete list of all your medications – including those prescribed by another provider, and any supplements or over-the-counter medications you take.

When prescribed medication, ask questions and be sure you understand the directions for use. Your pharmacist is another excellent source of information on what a drug does and any side effects to watch for. At many medical centers, you can even make an appointment with a pharmacist on staff to discuss your medications.

One important reminder: Even if you’ve been taking the same medication for years, the effects of a drug can change over time. As we age, our liver processes drugs more slowly and it takes longer for the kidneys to flush them out of our system, causing a potential build-up. Your physician may elect to modify your prescriptions if this is a suspected issue.

Here’s a list of common drug types that have been associated with memory problems:

  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Statins/cholesterol drugs
  • Seizure drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Narcotic painkillers
  • Parkinson’s medications
  • Hypertension drugs
  • Sleeping aids
  • Incontinence drugs
  • Antihistamines

Final thoughts

These are a few of the highly treatable causes of memory loss. The sooner they’re diagnosed, the sooner you may notice an improvement in your symptoms. So give your doctor a call. Information is power: now that’s something we can all remember.


  1. Oh…Wow…It is an very important part of our lives to know about. Memory loss is very pathetic and painful disease among others. It is really good to know about it. Thanks for sharing this informative article here…

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